After 22 years, one of RVA’s most consistent venues is making a significant change for the better, and the story of the woman at the helm of it all is just as important.
Cary St. Cafe, long a refuge for the long-haired, thick-maned and jam band-enthused Richmonder, has been a staple for over two decades. It’s inviting patio, cozy interior and individual bathrooms have played host to thousands of musicians and many thousand more shots and beers. And behind all those good times sits Robyn Chandler, the brunette matron and longtime owner.
A rural Kentucky native, Chandler grew up on a tobacco farm near the Ohio River. She wasn’t a fan of the laborious work, but she and her sisters and brothers learned a thing or two about work ethic. She managed to escape country life to college in Mississippi where she picked up a gig at a small bar which would later define her life more than she ever realized.
“It was the weirdest bar, the owners were silent partners… but they loved Jimmy Buffet,” said Chandler. The bar was called The Judges Chambers; the owners were all lawyers. And their love of Buffet meant the only rule for the quiet local spot was the house music ALWAYS had to be Jimmy Buffet.
“Unless there was live music,” she said. “And they had live music five nights a week; lots of blues, like Mississippi blues. It was amazing, except for the part where we had to listen to Jimmy Buffet.”
Now Chandler was into live music prior to The Judges Chambers, but something about nightly live Mississippi Delta blues inspired the young bartender and from that point on she knew what she wanted to do with her life… almost.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew what I didn’t want to do. I was naive,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about anything… I look back at myself then and I’m amazed I had the balls to leave [my home town].”
Deep inside she felt the need to run a local bar, offer nightly live music, and become a hot spot for those who shared her interests. But like all good plans, life got in the way for a bit first.
After her time in MS, she ended up in the army and was enlisted for four years. She got married, had two kids – it was a busy few years – but it was all to get out of that small town life.
The marriage didn’t work out, but fate would lead her to following a different man to RVA. Early bartending gigs in the area brought her to a few Fan spots, but by the early 90s she was working at Cary St. Cafe. After a year and a half tending bar, a new owner came in, but that didn’t last long either.
“It was just not making any money whatsoever,” she remembered. That’s when the owner offered her the space and she jumped on it. This was her chance to fulfill her dream.
She took over and started changing things almost immediately.
First there was the old decor – Marilyn Monroe memorabilia covered the walls. And it was a diner, not really a bar. She started pulling out booths to make room for live music. It started slow, with bands one or two nights a week.
But all of this happened in the shadow of one important fact – Chandler’s love of the Grateful Dead.
Formed in 1965 in Palo Alto, CA, The Grateful Dead needs no real introduction. The legendary jam band has continued to tour, today with new members, since its inception. But it was one show in the 80s, Chandler’s first, that would define her life like the Dead’s music has for so many other people.
“I just didn’t know what to expect,” she said, looking back at her first Dead show. “We got through the gates and I was grinning from ear to ear. I just found my people and I hadn’t even heard the music yet.”
It was the laughing, smiling crowd, and the vibes, which helped sway her to the band’s cause.
“The vibe was the coolest I’d ever felt in my life,” she said. “I know that sounds corny, but I’ll never forget that.”
From there she was hooked – and 32 years later, she’s still a fan. “It’s not just about the music, its about like-minded people,” she said.
Harkening back to her days at The Judge’s Chambers, she decided Cary St. Cafe would similarly play the Grateful Dead as house music almost exclusively (Chandler said it was more 50/50 but admits the tunes always fall in the jam band genre). “Yea know, The Dead’s cousin and stuff like that,” she said. “And it started immediately.”
And this consistency has created a kind of vacuum in the Fan, a local spot that you, your friends, and longtime fans can always count on to be there, open and jamming out.
“The minute they step in, [customers and Dead Heads] feel like they are home, and its still like that for me,” she said.
The Marilyn Monroe/old school cafe decor went out and slowly-but-surely was replaced with Dead memorabilia. Among the most noticeable pieces is the WV Bus hood hanging along the eastern wall. A loyal customer offered it to Chandler years ago and its stayed there every since.
“This guy called me and said he was getting married… and he had this hood he painted in school for an art project – he got an A+, you can still see it marked on the piece – but his fiancé said there was no way it was going into their house so he offered it to me and I took it,” she said laughing. “And he’s old now, he still comes in once in a while, to check on his hood.”
But decor was only part of the problem. Cary St. was lined with booths from wall to window. Within six months she started picking pieces apart. First was three booths in front so there was room for live tunes. Then bands started getting booked so she had to make more room meaning more tables had to go.
Fridays and Saturdays were getting lively, so Thursday was added, then Wednesday. Before long, middle booths were getting in the way of dancing so they had to go too.
While all of this was going on, Richmond was facing some demons of its own. The violence rate in the urban city skyrocketed but somehow, nestled in the top of the Fan near Carytown, Cary St. Cafe managed to escape it all.
Chandler remembered ABC making a new rule dealing with gang members wearing colors in bars in the early 2000s – an issue she never really even thought about. But sure enough, a few weeks later, some biker guys, normal, nice guy regulars who seemed to have escaped a rougher life, brought in their friends.
“They came in and these three more bikers came in to sit with them, and it had never happened before, but I thought ABC was testing me or something,” she said, noting ABC’s fondness for surprising license holders. “I had to go up to them and say, ‘this is the most insane thing I’ve ever had to say, but three of you are gonna have to take off your colors.’”
They got mad, she tried to sympathize, it was the rule – but it all worked out. Some how that was the closest her and her bar ever got to RVA’s violent years.
“I think our unique theme helped. It allowed us to escape a lot of that,” she said.
Between the theme and the “vibes,” Chandler has often run her business in line with her progressive values. She called herself a political person – she attended the Women’s March a few weeks back – and she’s taken steps to be inclusive at her bar as well.
This is most apparent with their bathrooms. The tiny, individual stalls (available only because of grandfathered permitting) are gender neutral and she’s proud of that fact.
“We have trans people, gay men and women who come in here… and it makes me so mad to see anyone be targeted… and I don’t think people understand that,” she said. She’s also printed shirts with the familiar “male” and “female” bathroom logos covering up their neither parts.
“It’s about everybody being treated equally,” she said. “It can’t just be gay people who are standing up for LGBT people – we should be standing up for everybody.”
She said she’s seen more than a few older customers enter the bathrooms and walk up and down the line not sure which facility to use.
“If you’re sitting down its a sitter, if you’re standing up you’re a stander, why does there have to be a gender?” she joked.
Between her candor and the house music, its easy to see why Chandler has been a success. I’ve personally spent many a night a few whiskeys deep on that patio, laughing at and along with hippies, watching people scurry back and fourth along Cary Street. It’s easily one of my favorite spots for this reason. But learning more about Chandler has only helped – that and the upgrades to their sound system.
The new system, installed by sound guy, booker and local musician Jeremy Simmons (Gravy, The Slink, Gold Sauce), is set to bring a new class of musician to the cozy Cary Street spot. Often bands have minimum requirements on sound systems and the new set up hopes to meet those, at least for some bigger acts in the future.
And the future is important to Chandler – after 22 years, technically about 23.5 if you count her first year and a half behind the bar, she’s starting to think about what’s next. Simmons is part of that plan, booking different music to broaden the scope of the bar.
“I’m too old for this shit,” she said laughing, but I don’t believe it. She did give herself another three years before she retired. “25 years is a long time to be doing this, it really is… its a long time to do anything.”
A medical emergency overseas showed her how precious her time is, and how she’s not sure she can handle some of the day-to-day involved in running a bar.
“I’d rather go out willingly instead of going out cause I have to,” she said. “I would rather it be my choice to retire than be forced to retire cause I can’t do anything… and I think 25 years is good.”
She’s already got someone in mind to take over when she sells the place, though she still plans to own the building to help her survive through retirement. As for the Grateful Dead theme? She hopes that’ll stay past her days as well.
“It would be kind of silly for someone to come in and change it – a succesful business to an unknown,” she said. “It’ll have the same kind of vibe. I never wanted to be a typical fan bar, and I don’t think we are.”
I tend to agree.
Keep up with Cary St. Cafe on Facebook here, and check out the new sound system when Jacuzzi Boys, Sports Bar and Piranha Rama take the stage this Monday, 3/20, at 9 PM.
Words and photos by Brad Kutner